Today I will try something that may not meet with the approval of the Hungarian journalistic community. I will critically analyze Ágnes Fazekas’s interview in Népszava with János Lázár on November 5. The occasion for the interview was Népszava’s boycott of Lázár’s weekly two-hour-long press conferences.
The reason for the boycott is not entirely clear. On October 12 Népszava joined nine other media outlets in protesting the shuttering of Népszabadság. At that time some commentators pointed out that these séances, as one commentator called the Thursday afternoon performances, have no real news value. Moreover, in the last two years Lázár and his loyal spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, have learned the art of outfoxing the often timid journalists. In brief, one doesn’t miss much by not attending.
Well, Népszava didn’t show up at some of these press conferences and Lázár expressed his dismay at the absence of the paper’s reporter. On the spot he promised to phone the editorial office of the paper in order, I guess, to convince them to return. By the end there was no need for the telephone call because Lázár bumped into Népszava’s reporter in the parliament building. She told him that the reason for her absence was Lázár’s lack of frankness when answering the journalists’ questions. At the same time she invited him for an interview, which he somewhat unexpectedly accepted.
Ágnes Fazekas reminded Lázár that the decision to boycott the “government info” was made by the editorial board because Lázár’s answers to their reporter’s questions were not “sincere.” The word “truthful” would have been more appropriate, but I guess she felt she had to tread lightly. Lázár was “hurt.” The prime minister had tasked him with answering all of the questions to the best of his knowledge. He said he has been trying to answer all questions correctly. He didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but if he did, he apologizes. The reporter dropped the topic instantly, adding that “it’s nice that you want us back.” This response set the tone for the conversation that followed. Once the reporter let Lázár off the hook and didn’t probe into the untrue statements that are the hallmarks of these press conferences Lázár had every reason to relax.
After Lázár’s high praise of the journalistic profession and an empty statement about the necessity of a good working relationship between politicians and the media, Fazekas complained only about Lázár’s “cynical answers to their questions.” For example, when the reporter of Népszava asked him about the dispersal of advertising money among the media outlets, Lázár referred him to the agencies responsible for the decisions when it is clear that the final word comes from the government. Her use of the word “cynical” is misplaced here. What she should have said was that Lázár didn’t tell the truth. Cynicism means “an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity,” which is a far cry from what happened. Lázár not only denied the obvious but in the interview itself claimed that advertising money from government sources is strictly allocated according to the size of the readership. That is not cynicism; that is a blatant lie. Servile media outlets get advertising money galore despite having very small circulations while papers critical of the government get practically nothing.
The next topic was the case of Ghaith Pharaon, the infamous Saudi businessman, and his activities in Hungary. But again, instead of going to the heart of the matter Fazekas complained only about the timing of the release of the information. Again the real problem here is not that Lázár “as the minister responsible for intelligence matters should have talked about the case earlier” but that the information he gave was inaccurate. And, to compound the problem, he added another piece of misinformation in this interview. “As far as I know, he as a private person hasn’t engaged in any economic activity in Hungary.” I assume Lázár is trying to distinguish between Pharaon the individual and Pharaon’s businesses. But in this context the distinction is sophistical. Lázár also assured Fazekas that there was no national security risk as far as Pharaon’s stay in Hungary was concerned, another doubtful assertion given the man’s past dealings with terrorist organizations.
Instead of following up, Fazekas asked a government-friendly question, whether George Soros is a greater national security risk than Ghaith Pharaon. That turn in the conversation allowed Lázár to drop the uncomfortable subject of the Saudi businessman’s affairs in Hungary and turn to immigration and Hungary’s opposition to it.
Fazekas then returned to the question of the media. Fazekas wanted to know “when will the government settle its relations with the left-wing media?” This question seems too broad to me, but Lázár seemed to have known what the reporter meant and announced that “this is a very difficult question.” What Népszava’s journalist had in mind was Fidesz’s boycott of independent organs critical of the government. On this score not even Lázár could offer soothing words to Fazekas. Politics in Hungary is a death struggle, he said, but he himself tries to bring some humor and generosity to political discourse. He is hoping that after 2018 this situation will change. Fazekas didn’t remind Lázár that Hungarians had heard such promises before, except then the date was 2014. Why should anyone believe that after 2018 anything will change? Instead of posing this obvious question, she magnanimously laid out Népszava’s welcome mat for Fidesz politicians. Lázár graciously accepted the invitation and promised to pass it on, I assume to the prime minister.
I’ve pretty much summed up this interview, which was described as important because Fidesz politicians, with very few exceptions, don’t give interviews to independent papers. The list of newspapers on the blacklist is getting longer and longer.
Certainly, by western standards this interview is unsatisfactory, not at all hard-hitting, but I assume that self-censorship was at work. The reporter was so pleased that she had finally managed to have an interview with János Lázár that she didn’t want to alienate him. Unfortunately, this is how things work in an “illiberal state” where media freedom is severely constrained.